Category Archives: design

Nonagenarian designs for aging and inspires younger designers

Barbara Beskind, 90, is a designer at IDEO who works with engineers on products that improve the quality of life for older people. Nicolas Zurcher/Courtesy of IDEO
Barbara Beskind, 90, is a designer at IDEO who works with engineers on products that improve the quality of life for older people.
Nicolas Zurcher/Courtesy of IDEO

NPR published a great story on Barbara Beskind, a product and interface designer in her early nineties.

My favorite excerpt:

Gretchen Addi, an associate partner at IDEO, hired Beskind. Addi says when Beskind is in a room, young designers do think differently. For example, Addi says IDEO is working with a Japanese company on glasses to replace bifocals. With a simple hand gesture, the glasses will turn from the farsighted prescription to the nearsighted one.

Initially, the designers wanted to put small changeable batteries in the new glasses. Beskind pointed out to them that old fingers are not that nimble.

“It really caused the design team to reflect,” Addi says. They realized they could design the glasses in a way that avoided the battery problem. “Maybe it’s just a USB connection. Are there ways that we can think about this differently?”

There are several wonderful take-home messages:

  • Creative and fulfilling work can extend late into the lifetime
  • Aging does not just bring limitations, it also extends perspective and wisdom
  • Designing for aging is doesn’t detract from a product but can enhance it for people of all ages
  • Having a person with such perspective on a design team changes the perspective and thoughts of the rest of the team, the core tenant of participatory design

Apple Watch Human Factors

watchThe big news in tech last week was the unveiling of the Apple Watch. I think it is a nice moment to discuss a range of human factors topics. (This topic may elicit strong feelings for or against Apple or the idea of a smartwatch but let’s keep it about the science.)

The first is technology adoption/acceptance. Lots of people were probably scratching their heads asking, “who wears a watch, nowadays?” But you do see lots of people wearing fitness bands. Superficially, that contrast seems to demonstrate the Technology Acceptance Model (TAM) in action.  TAM is a way to try to understand when people will adopt new technology. It boils down the essential factors to usability (does it seem easy to use?) and usefulness (does it seem like it will help my work or life?).

Fitness bands check both of the above boxes: since they are essentially single-function devices they are relatively easy to use and tracking fitness is perceived as useful for many people.

Back to the Watch, it may also check off both of the above boxes: it certainly appears easy to use (but we do not know yet), and because it has fitness tracking functions plus many others via apps it certainly may be perceived as useful to the same crowd that buys fitness bands.

The next topic that got me excited was the discussion of the so-called digital crown (shown below). Anne and I have previously studied the contrasts between touch screens and rotary knobs for a variety of computing tasks. Having both choices allows the user select the best input device for the task: touch for pushing big on-screen buttons and large-scale movement and knob for precise, linear movement without obscuring the screen. Using a knob is certainly easier than a touch screen if you have shaky hands or are riding a bumpy cab.


Two small items of note that were included in the Watch was the use of the two-finger gesture on the watch face to send a heart beat to another user–the same gesture many people intuitively think of when they want to feel their own heart beat.

Finally, the Watch has the ability to send animated emoij to other users. What was noteworthy is the ability to manipulate both eyes and mouth in emoji characters. I couldn’t find any literature but I recall somewhere that there is some cross-cultural differences in how people use and interpret emoji: Western users tend to focus on the mouth while Eastern users tend to focus on the eyes (if you know what reference I’m talking about or if I’m mis-remembering, feel free to comment).



There’s so much I haven’t brought up (haptic and multi-modal feedback, user interface design, automation, voice input and of course privacy)!



Wearable Fitness Trackers: A Comparative Usability Evaluation

This guest post is from graduate students Haley Vaigneur and Bliss Altenhoff. Haley and Bliss compared the usability of two fitness trackers as part of a graduate course in health informatics taught by Kelly Caine.


Wearable fitness trackers allow users to track and monitor their health. While these devices originated as a way for doctors to monitor chronically ill patients’ vitals, they have recently been developed and marketed for to a more general, health-conscious market. Equipped with advanced sensors such as accelerometers, users’ activity and sleep can be automatically tracked and then compared with their logged fitness goals and daily diet. Users can then use their statistics to help create or maintain a healthier lifestyle. Two examples of such devices are the Jawbone Up and Fitbit Flex, shown above.

Wearable technology is popular and has the potential to dramatically impact health (e.g. long-term health and activity data tracking, immediate syncing with Electronic Health Records (EHRs)). But these benefits can only be realized if the user is able to effectively use and understand these devices. This was the motivation for focusing on two of the most popular models of fitness trackers: the JawBone Up and FitBit Flex and their accompanying smartphone apps.

This study examined the usability of these two devices and their accompanying smartphone apps by having 14 participants (7 for Jawbone Up, 7 for FitBit Flex) perform a think-aloud test on five key features: Setup, Setting Goals, Tracking Diet, Tracking Activity, and Setting an Alarm. Participants then kept the wearable for three days and were encouraged to incorporate it into their normal routine. On the third day, participants completed the System Usability Scale survey and an informal interview regarding their experiences using the wearable.

Some of the key Jawbone UP findings were:

  1. Adding food or drink items was somewhat difficult due to unintuitive organization and unpredictable bugs. For example, one participant attempted to add a food item by scanning the bar code of a Lunchable, but the app added a Dr. Pepper to the log.
  2. Participants struggled to find the alarm settings, with one conducting a general web search for help to understand the Smart Sleep Window settings and how to save alarm settings.
  3. None of the participants were able to figure out how to communicate to the band or app that they would like to begin a workout. They didn’t realize that the Stopwatch menu option was intended to time the workout.

Some of the key findings of the FitBit Flex were:

Setting goals
Setting goals
What do I tap?
  1. Participants felt that the wristband (when using the appropriate sized band) was not uncomfortable or revealing and they were proud to wear it because it made them feel healthy.
  2. Users had a difficult time figuring out where to go on the app to set their health goals at first. Their instinct was to find it on the app homepage, or Dashboard, but it was under the Account tab.
  3. Some users had difficulty putting on the wristband, and several noted that it fell off unexpectedly. Users were also confused about where to “tap” the wristband to activate it, based on the instructions given in the app. The picture can appear to instruct the user to tap below the black screen, when the user actually needs to tap the screen directly, and firmly.
  4. Users did not realize that after turning Bluetooth on their phone, they needed to return to the app to tell the phone and wristband to begin syncing. They also noted that leaving Bluetooth on all day drained their phone battery.

    Bluetooth confusion

Based on time per task and number of errors the FitBit Flex performed better than the Jawbone Up on the five tasks. Users’ ultimate trust in the data, willingness to continue using the wearable, and general satisfaction with each wearable was heavily influenced by their initial experiences (first day). The positive initial think-aloud results for the FitBit Flex were also consistent with a more positive later experience and stronger acceptance of the wearable.

This study found that there is still much room for improvement in the usability of the accompanying smartphone apps. A major concern for these kinds of devices is keeping user interest and motivation, which can easily be lost through confusing or cumbersome designs. By striving to improve the human factors of the apps simultaneous to the capabilities of the actual wearables, there is great potential for greater user satisfaction, and thus more long-term use.

While activity tracking wearables are currently most popular with more tech-savvy, active people, these devices should be designed to be used by all ages and levels of experience users. These devices could change health monitoring drastically and give people the power and ability to make better choices, and live healthier lifestyles.

Haley Vaigneur is a graduate student in Industrial Engineering at Clemson University. Her concentration is Human Factors and Ergonomics, emphasizing on research in the healthcare field.

Bliss Altenhoff is a Doctoral Candidate studying Human Factors Psychology at Clemson University, where she received her M.S. in Applied Psychology in 2012.  She is a member of the Perception and Action (PAC) lab, where her research is concentrated on enhancing human perception and performance by enriching perceptual display technologies for laparoscopic surgeons. .

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1314342. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Brilliant guard against accidents in indoor rock climbing

For those who don’t follow news of climbing accidents as closely as I do, there has been a spate of accidents associated with the automatic belay devices (autobelays) installed at climbing gyms.

These devices are handy to have around as they negate the need for a climbing partner, allowing one to exercise and train alone. The climber clips his or her harness into the device at the bottom of the wall, and it automatically retracts (like a seat belt) when you climb upward. At the top, you let go of the wall and the device lowers you slowly back to the ground. You are probably imagining that the accidents had to do with failures of the equipment – while that is not unheard of, the most recent issues have all been with climbers forgetting to clip into the system at all.

The most recent tragedy occurred this past September, where an experienced climber died after a fall in a Texas gym, and it’s been listed as so common it happens at “every gym,” though not always resulting in a fall. Here is the facebook page with members of another gym discussing a similar accident.


If you talk with climbers or read accident forums you will invariably be faced with a large contingent bent on blaming the victim. I’ll grant that it is hard to imagine forgetting to clip into a safety device and climb 30 feet up a wall, but that’s because I hardly ever do it. One characteristics these accidents share is that the victims were experienced and used the auto-belays frequently.

When a procedure becomes automatic, it becomes more accurate and less effortful, but it also becomes less accessible to the conscious mind. When a step is skipped, but all other steps are unaffected, it’s especially hard to notice the skipped step in an automatic process. If caring more or working harder or “being more careful” could actually prevent this type of problem, we wouldn’t have any toddlers left in hot cars, perfectly good airplanes flown into the ground, or climbers falling because they didn’t clip into the autobelay.

That brings me to the device I saw installed at a climbing gym last night.

guardAbove: The guard in place, clipped to the wall and ready to go. Notice how it blocks the footholds of the climbs.

photo 2Above: Nikki shows how to unclip the guard before attaching to her harness.


photo 4Above: Clipped in and safely ready to go. Guard is on the ground and out of the way (it is ok to step on it!)

Let me tell you why I think this is brilliant.

  • It’s highly visible.
  • It functions as a guard. This adheres to the hierarchy of safety: First, try to design out the hazard. Second, guard against the hazard. Last, warn. These are in order of effectiveness. Prior to this device, I had only seen signs on the wall saying “Clip in!” (And a year ago, even those didn’t exist.) This device physically blocks the start of the climbing routes, demanding interaction before one starts climbing.
  • Using it properly does not add any additional time or mess to climbing a route. If it weren’t there, the climber would still have to unclip the autobelay from an anchor close to the ground, etc. With it there, the climber does the same thing and once done, the guard becomes a flat mat that doesn’t get in anyone’s way.

Is it perfect? No. You can also climb with a belayer on the same or nearby routes, and then it’s also blocking your way at the start of the climb. Some adaptation should be made by the route-setters at the gyms to minimize this. But overall, what a great and simple solution.


Usability process not used for ACA website

slideA recently released report, done in March 2013, reveals the process of creating Hindsight is always 20/20, but we’ve also worked hard to establish best practices for considering both engineering and the user in software development. These contributions need to be valued, especially for large scale projects. After looking through the slides, one thing I note is that even this improved approach barely mentions the end users of the website. There is one slide that states “Identify consumer paths; review and modify vignettes.” The two examples of this are users who have more or less complex needs when signing up for insurance. I don’t see any mention of involving actual users prior to release.

The NPR write-up states:

Consultants noted there was no clear leader in charge of this project, which we now know contributed to its disastrous release. And there was no “end-to-end testing” of its full implementation, something we now know never happened.

Some of this may fall on us, for not being convincing enough that human factors methods are worth the investment. How much would the public be willing to pay for a solid usability team to work with the website developers?

Potpourri–Lazy Summer Edition

It’s summer and we (along with some of you) are taking a break.  But here’s a list of interesting usability/HF-related things that have crossed my path:

  • After much complaining, Ford is bringing back physical knobs in their MyTouch in-car controls.  Anne and I worked on some research (PDF) in our past lives as graduate students that directly compared touch-only interfaces to knob-based interfaces so it’s nice to see it is still a major issue; if only Ford read our 9 year old paper 🙂
  • Trucks driving under very low bridges is such a large problem in Australia that they are deploying a really novel and clever warning system.  A waterfall that projects a sign that’s hard to miss!
  • tags_finderApple will introduce their next version of OSX in the fall. One of the features i’m most excited about is system-level tag support.  Tags allow users to organize their files regardless of location or type.  I’m particularly interested in personal, single-user-generated tagging (compared to collaborative tagging like that used in flickr) as it appears to benefit older adults information organization and retrieval (PDF).  This pleases me.


Another edition of potpourri where I surface some of the more interesting HF/usability links that have crossed my path.

The Other Father of Human Factors: John E. Karlin

Paul M. Fitts is widely regarded as the father of human factors.  He gets mentioned a lot in HF texts because of his (still influential) law.  In more modern times, Donald Norman gets a lot of recognition as the author of the Design of Everyday Things (mentioned in my post below) which introduced the idea of psychology and human factors to a more mainstream audience.  However, someone who never gets mentioned (in my 12 years of education i’ve seen him mentioned once) was John E. Karlin who recently passed away.

By all accounts a modest man despite his variegated accomplishments (he had a doctorate in mathematical psychology, was trained in electrical engineering and had been a professional violinist), Mr. Karlin, who died on Jan. 28, at 94, was virtually unknown to the general public.

He is still relatively unknown to HF only because he rarely published his results; instead, he worked to solve problems in industry using the scientific method that all psychologists use.

“He was the one who introduced the notion that behavioral sciences could answer some questions about telephone design,” Ed Israelski, an engineer who worked under Mr. Karlin at Bell Labs in the 1970s, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.

The NYT recently posted an obit detailing his contributions including such fundamental ones such as the telephone numeric layout (different from calculator layout):

Putting “1-2-3” on the pad’s top row instead of the bottom (the configuration used, then as now, on adding machines and calculators) was also born of Mr. Karlin’s group: they found it made for more accurate dialing.

The piece is very well written and I’m a little surprised that the author actually seems to understand HF and how it’s unique from other things (emphasis added):

It is not so much that Mr. Karlin trained midcentury Americans how to use the telephone. It is, rather, that by studying the psychological capabilities and limitations of ordinary people, he trained the telephone, then a rapidly proliferating but still fairly novel technology, to assume optimal form for use by midcentury Americans.

(NYT: great article but you hyphenated human factors in the 10th paragraph)

Go read it!